Woke Up With a Stiff Neck? Here Are 5 Ways to Help With That Nagging Pain

Neck pain from sleeping can be a real pain in the, well, neck. Fortunately, there are several things you can do to ease the ache.
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You know how you spend the day hunched over looking at your two (or three!) screens, smartphone and tablet?

Well, sitting with your head in front of your shoulders puts stress on the back of your neck and shoulder blades, Mary Kate Casey, PT, DPT, owner and founder of Prep Performance Center in Chicago, tells LIVESTRONG.com. When those muscles are fired up throughout the day, they're prone to overuse injury that leaves them chronically fatigued. As a result, neck soreness and stiffness reign.

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All of this is to say, there's probably a pretty obvious reason why you wake up with a stiff neck — the type of pain that makes it uncomfortable to turn to the right or left. Oftentimes, the muscles on one side of your neck become so fatigued they relent and put extra pressure on the other side and the spine, Casey says.

"Your spine is like stacked Lego blocks. If those Legos don't line up, you'll have pain when trying to move your head," she says.

If you wake up with neck stiffness, there are a few things that you can do to relieve the pain and improve your comfort. Here are five methods that may help you find relief.

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1. Pop an NSAID

You might take a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAIDS) like ibuprofen to relieve the pain, Casey says. Just make sure that the drug is approved by your doctor.

Always follow the directions on the bottle, and don't be afraid to take the medication as advised for one or two full days to allow the inflammation to subside. Any long-term use should be discussed with your doctor in advance.

2. Use Heat

Casey says she generally prefers to use heat instead of ice on the pain that comes with a stiff neck. The heat warms the surrounding tissues to help release tightness, she says. Try a heating pad or a warm shower.

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You can make your own heating pad by filling an old (larger) sock with uncooked rice and sealing it at the top either by sewing it shut or closing it with a rubber band. Place the sock on a microwave-safe plate and nuke it for two minutes. Be careful as you remove the sock from the microwave (it's supposed to be hot!).

Place the hot sock on your achy neck to relieve the pain — just reheat it in the microwave when it begins to lose heat.

3. Book a Massage or Try Self-Massage

If you can get a massage, this will offer temporary relief, but won't fix the underlying problem if there's a joint issue at play, Casey says. Similarly, if you have a massage gun, it may provide temporary relief — so go ahead and use it.

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"The vibration will desensitize the pain, but you're not really, as I like to say, addressing the center of the onion," Casey says.

Again, it's OK to utilize massage, just know there are limits to its benefits.

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4. Try Some Stretching

There are four stretches Casey recommends for a stiff neck in the morning. "These should open you up quite well to get you up and get you moving," she says.

Goal-Post Stretch

  1. Lie down on a vertically positioned foam roller. (The foam roller should run along your spine from your head to your butt, knees bent with feet flat on the floor).
  2. Lift both arms up to the ceiling.
  3. Open up your arms into a "goal-post" position, so that your arms are at your sides at a 90-degree angle.
  4. You should feel this stretch opening your chest.

Arm-Reaching Stretch

  1. Lie down on the foam roller in the same position described above.
  2. Reach your arms over your head so that your body makes one long segment on the foam roller.
  3. You should feel this stretch in your latissimus dosi, aka your lats.

Side Bend Stretch

  1. Bend your left ear down toward your left shoulder.
  2. Using your left hand, gently pull your ear closer to your shoulder to intensify the stretch as is comfortable.
  3. Repeat on the right side.

Nose-to-Armpit Stretch

  1. Bend your head down to look into your left armpit. (You'll feel this stretch your levator scapulae, which are the muscles that run from the bottom of your scull to each shoulder blade.)
  2. Repeat on the other side.

For all stretches, perform each dynamically for 10 reps. (For instance: Bend your left ear toward your left shoulder 10 times. Switch and do 10 reps on the right side.) Then, hold the stretch on each side statically for 30 to 50 seconds. Complete a total of two rounds.

Warning

If your neck pain is caused by an injury, be sure you talk to your doctor first before doing any physical activity. If any of these stretches or exercises worsen the pain, stop and seek medical attention.

5. See a Physical Therapist

If the stiffness lingers for more than a couple days, make an appointment with your doctor or a physical therapist (PT). (In some states, you may be able to make an appointment with an in-network PT rather than waiting for a referral from your primary doctor. Check your insurance benefits.)

A physical therapist may try a joint mobilization or manipulation to rotate the misaligned spinal segment back into place. Once that happens, surrounding muscles tend to go into spasm, Casey says. Your PT will also calm those muscles down during an appointment.

A PT can also help determine the lifestyle changes you can make — like improved desk ergonomics to help you sit in the right posture — to protect your spine in the future.

"If you don't take care of it now and sit with joints stacked correctly, they'll wind and grind in abnormal ways that will catch up to you as you age," Casey says.

So, while the above fixes may help in the short term, they can't quite overcome days and weeks of poor posture — so don't hesitate to get help when you need it.

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Is This an Emergency?

If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911. If you think you may have COVID-19, use the CDC’s Coronavirus Self-Checker.